In light of the Ukraine crisis, a historical look at communist thinking on the connection between a third world war and revolution.
Sergei N. Goncharov, John W. Lewis, and Xue Litai, Uncertain Partners: Stalin, Mao, and the Korean War
David Holloway, Stalin and the Bomb
Edward Wilson, “Thank you Vasili Arkhipov, the man who stopped nuclear war”
Mao Zedong, “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People”
Mao Zedong, “Speech at a Meeting of the Representatives of 64 Communist and Workers’ Parties”
M. Upshaw, “Considerations on a Revolutionary Situation in the United States: Likely Triggering Factors, Potential Political Contours”
Some names from this episode:
Vyacheslav Molotov, Soviet foreign minister
Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, Soviet submarine officer who averted nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis
Welcome to episode 90 of the People’s History of Ideas Podcast.
If you’re listening to this podcast near the time that is being released, and who knows for how long into the future, there’s a war going on, which began on February 24, 2022, with a Russian invasion of Ukraine. For me, this has felt like one of those very serious events where you can’t just keep on doing what you normally do without at least acknowledging what is going on, and the potential for this to turn into something much, much worse than it already is. So, I want to take a step back for one episode from our ongoing narrative of the Chinese Revolution and look at a particular historical topic inspired by current events, namely the way in which people who are committed to a communist vision of humanity’s future have thought about the prospects of the outbreak of a third world war.
I bring up this topic of a third world war as an urgent one in today’s world, although my treatment of it here is just going to be historical. I don’t bring this up in order be edgy. History shows us that, in the context of warfare, the logic of the moment can spin out of control and military powers can find themselves committed to catastrophic exchanges that make no sense outside of a particular military and grand strategic logic, and which in retrospect humanity broadly condemns. The First World War is the big example of this, when a political assassination quickly escalated into massive carnage that enveloped Europe.
And we have come very close to nuclear war in the past, in ways that hinged on the decisions of just a couple of people, not even top military leaders. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, on October 27, 1962, when the US and Soviet navies were confronting each other at the blockade line that the United States had put up to keep the Soviets from bringing nuclear arms to Cuba, there was a Soviet submarine which came under fire from the US navy. The US destroyers were dropping practice depth charges at the submarine, which were supposed to be non-lethal, in an effort to get the Soviet submarine to surface. But the Soviet sailors had no way to know that these were just practice depth charges that were being dropped on it. The submarine was too deep underwater to get radio traffic, so it didn’t know what was going on up above, and it had been given standing orders for what to do if it came under fire. Now, unknown to the US ships above it, this submarine had nuclear torpedoes on it, which were about equivalent to the bomb that had been used in Hiroshima by the United States at the end of World War Two. The Soviet submarine had been underwater for weeks, and everyone on board was exhausted and their nerves were frayed, and the captain of the submarine believed that if they were under fire, then world war three had probably already broken out. He wanted to fire a nuclear torpedo into the US aircraft carrier that was leading the US naval taskforce. However, launching the torpedo required the agreement of the three senior officers on board, one refused, Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, someone you probably haven’t heard of, but who probably saved humanity, because had the Soviet submarine launched its nuclear torpedo, it almost certainly would have led to a full-scale nuclear exchange between NATO and the Soviet Union.
Anyways, who knows how the current war in Ukraine could escalate, as NATO countries continue to come to the aid of Ukraine. So, I want to take this episode to look at how communist revolutionaries have thought about a third world war in relationship to their own project of communist revolution.
The idea of a third world war has undergone some change in meaning since thinking about what a future third world war would look like first began to be considered by strategic thinkers in both the socialist and imperialist camps. Stalin viewed a third world war as an inevitability, and, at least in a grand strategic sense, as a good thing. Stalin’s foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, quotes Stalin as saying: “The First World War tore one country away from capitalist slavery. The Second World War created the socialist system, and the Third World War will finish imperialism forever.”
In the immediate aftermath of World War Two, Stalin saw this inevitable third world war as being still mainly a conventional war, not mainly a nuclear war, and as following in the pattern of the past two world wars. Right after World War 2 ended, he saw Germany as being the likely instigator of the war and saw nuclear weapons mainly as not necessarily qualitatively changing the nature of the war. However, as the United States began enacting more and more aggressive containment policies against the Soviet Union and expanding NATO, Stalin’s priority became countering the encirclement of the country. And as the importance of nuclear weapons to future warfare sank in, the Soviet Union ramped up its nuclear arms development program, culminating in the achievement of a Soviet nuclear bomb in 1949.
Still, even in the early 1950s, Stalin continued to view nuclear weapons mainly as just very destructive bombs, and not as weapons whose use might end in the annihilation of all life on earth. His priority in preparing for an inevitable third world war remained buying time to prepare the Soviet Union to be able to win that upcoming war, but he expected it to come within two decades, and even very likely by the mid-1950s. And as the American nuclear arsenal grew, the reality that a future world war would be qualitatively different from a past world war eventually began to sink in. Here is how Molotov remembered the situation:
“Stalin was heading for the victory of socialism and the annihilation of capitalism… We needed peace, but according to the American plans, two hundred of our cities had to be bombed simultaneously.” So, by the time he died in 1953, it is clear that Stalin was coming to grips with the changing nature of warfare and had responded by ramping up Soviet production of its own nuclear arsenal.
Still, the idea persisted that a third world war was extremely likely. On the one side, there was Lenin’s thesis that competition among capitalist powers tended toward expressing itself in warfare. And on the other side, there was an understanding on the part of the leaders of the socialist countries that capitalism and socialism could never totally peacefully coexist with each other, that on some level capitalist countries pose an existential threat to socialist countries, and vice versa. And so, if war was almost inevitable, and it certainly seemed likely at many points during the decades between the end of World War Two and the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, then it would be irresponsible not to prepare for that eventuality.
Mao Zedong, in his 1957 talk “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People,” in the section of that talk which is subtitled “Can Bad Things Be Turned into Good Things?,” said:
“People all over the world are now discussing whether or not a third world war will break out. On this question, too, we must be mentally prepared and do some analysis. We stand firmly for peace and against war. But if the imperialists insist on unleashing another war, we should not be afraid of it. Our attitude on this question is the same as our attitude towards any disturbance: first, we are against it; second, we are not afraid of it. The First World War was followed by the birth of the Soviet Union with a population of 200 million. The Second World War was followed by the emergence of the socialist camp with a combined population of 900 million. If the imperialists insist on launching a third world war, it is certain that several hundred million more will turn to socialism, and then there will not be much room left on earth for the imperialists; it is also likely that the whole structure of imperialism will completely collapse.”
And in the same year, 1957, in at a conference in Moscow of Communist Parties from around the world, Mao said:
“At present another situation has to be taken into account, namely, that the war maniacs may drop atomic and hydrogen bombs everywhere. They drop them and we act after their fashion; thus there will be chaos and lives will be lost. The question has to be considered for the worst. The Politburo of our party has held several sessions to discuss this question. If fighting breaks out now, China has only hand-grenades and not atomic bombs – which the Soviet Union has, though. Let us imagine, how many people will die if war should break out? Out of the world’s population of 2,700 million, one-third – or if more, half – may be lost. It is they and not we who want to fight; when a fight starts, atomic and hydrogen bombs may be dropped. I debated this question with a foreign statesman. He believed that if an atomic war was fought, the whole of mankind would be annihilated. I said that if the worst came to the worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain while imperialism would be razed to the ground and the whole world would become socialist; in a number of years there would be 2,700 million people again and definitely more. We Chinese have not yet completed our construction and we desire peace. However, if imperialism insists on fighting a war we will have no alternative but to make up our minds and fight to the finish before going ahead with our construction.”
Now, as we discussed back in episode 62, This quote from Mao is often taken as a demonstration of his cavalier attitude toward nuclear annihilation. I read it differently. The situation that Mao faced in 1957 was that China could either give in to nuclear blackmail by the United States (and about a decade later it also faced a nuclear threat from the Soviet Union) or try to come up with an orientation for how to persevere in the face of the American (and then later Soviet) threats. For Mao not to be trying to think along these lines, and to do so publicly in a way that rallied rather than demoralized the Chinese population and the international Communist movement more broadly, would have been irresponsible.
That said, these comments are not just a rallying cry in the face of a hostile and much better armed enemy. The idea that a nuclear war might be the precipitating event for a further expansion of the socialist world, such as happened in the wake of both world wars, remained an influential idea among Communist revolutionaries.
Which brings us to an interesting document that I want to focus on for the rest of this episode. Because, it’s one thing to say that, look, we can observe that the Russian Revolution arose in the wake of the first world war, and that the second world war was followed by the creation of a much larger socialist bloc, and so, logically, a third world war will create new socialist revolutions. Sure, there’s a logic to that, and we see that both Stalin and Mao deployed that logic, at least they did in their rhetoric. But, given the specific circumstances of a nuclear holocaust, how on earth would said communist revolution actually take place? Not a lot was written on the topic. But, there is one interesting document that was published in 1987 that seriously considered how a nuclear war might precipitate a revolutionary situation in the United States.
This consideration comes in an article titled “Considerations on a Revolutionary Situation in the United States: Likely Triggering Factors, Potential Political Contours” and was written by someone who described themself as a “long-time student of the line of the Revolutionary Communist Party.” Now, the Revolutionary Communist Party, and internationally there have been a number of parties that have gone by this name, actually one of the oral history interviews that I did which I am most proud of having managed to get was an interview that I did with a former major ideologue of the Chilean Revolutionary Communist Party, Jorge Palacios. But here we’re talking about the RCP that existed, and still exists in some form, in the United States. The RCP,USA, while always a small and marginal group on the US political scene, in its heyday often managed to hit above its weight in influencing a variety of movements here, and internationally managed to get its ideas taken seriously by a lot of much more significant groups. For example, when Abimael Guzmán, the leader of Peru’s Shining Path, was arrested, his personal library contained a full run of publications from the RCP,USA, and he even had a poster with the RCP’s leader’s face on it which had been done in a way somewhat imitative of the posters of Mao’s face that were made in China.
So, let’s examine what this person thought about the possibilities that a nuclear war might present for creating a socialist state in the United States.
The article begins with an extended excerpt from a study that Francis Fukuyama drafted for the Rand Corporation in 1984. In this excerpt, Fukuyama spins out a relatively plausible story of how a potential political crisis in Iran might have led to a Soviet invasion of Iran (Fukuyama’s scenario actually is similar to the set of events that led to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979), and then how US military opposition to an invasion of Iran might have escalated into an all out nuclear war, despite efforts on the part of both the Soviets and the US to keep the war within regional limits at several stages of the process of escalation. It’s a very interesting and, in my opinion, it was a plausible scenario at the time, and I’m really glad that it never happened. I’ve included a link to the article in the show notes for anyone who wants to read it.
Anyways, after excerpting this Rand Corporation study, the author then moves on to give their thoughts on all the geopolitical stuff in the excerpt. Also, in my opinion, interesting material and a good read if you’re into that sort of thing, which you probably are if you are listening to this podcast. If you do read it, see if you agree with me or not that while the comments of both Francis Fukuyama and the American Maoist author of the “Considerations on a Revolutionary Situation in the United States” article are very specific to their time, it would also be easy to think of a lot of similar ways in which the current crisis in the Ukraine could spiral out of control and lead to nuclear war.
OK, anyways, now lets move on to the section of the article which is why I’m bringing it up now. After commenting on geopolitical matters, the author goes on to talk about how they thought an unfolding nuclear war crisis might affect the domestic political scene in the United States, and in what ways it might create possibilities for, in Mao’s language, “a bad thing to be turned into a good thing;” that is, for an unfolding nuclear crisis to be turned into an opportunity for communist revolution in the United States.
This section of the article is really the only substantial public theoretical work that I am aware of ever having been written by someone who took Stalin and Mao’s comments about a third world war leading to communist revolution seriously and, as a response, tried to lay out just what it would look like to try and put those words into practice. Now, of course, there is a lot of stuff out there that I haven’t read and am not familiar with, so if any listeners know of any other works out there that do something similar, I would love it if you would share it with me. But since this is the only piece like it that I am aware of, I am going to share the relevant section of the article with you here.
Let’s get started:
OK, there you have it. Not quite as optimistic as Mao and Stalin’s statements, but still searching out the possibilities, the cracks through which a revolutionary moment might be grasped within the context of nuclear Armageddon. It was a long bit to just read out, but I hope you agree with me that it was worth it.
Before we go, I will point out one thing that strikes me about both Stalin and Mao’s comments (both here and elsewhere), and the approach demonstrated by this article by an American Maoist. They all take an approach which sees revolutionary opportunities arriving at conjunctural moments, which is very different from the sort of gradualist institution-building that seems to dominate most of the strategic thinking of leftists in the United States these days (although I will admit that there is probably some interesting stuff out there that I am unaware of). Actually, this tension between institution-building and maintaining a readiness to seize on revolutionary situations as they emerge is not such a simple thing to manage, and I don’t bring this up to diminish anyone’s efforts. But the lack of conjunctural thinking is something that I have noted, at least in the stuff that I have been exposed to.
Anyways, that’s it for now. Take care, and see you next time.